Herbal Medicine and Practice of Western Herbal Medicine.

The use of herbs has been an effective medicine for the treatment of illness since the beginning of mankind and in the past herbs/plants have been the original source of most drugs and to this day continue to be studied for their medicinal activities. Written records about medicinal plants dates back at least 5000 years to the Sumerians, but the practice of herbal medicine may even date back 60,000 years from what has been discovered at an archaeological burial site in a cave in Northern Iraq, and 8000 years ago in China.

The medicinal plants used by Western herbal medicine practitioners today are still use in the traditional way, mostly in the crude form using little or no industrial processing, the plants are relatively intact and as close to the natural state. With the development of western medicine and chemistry the active substance of many medicinal plants were isolated and used as pharmaceutical medicine, and now are often the basis for synthetic drugs.

An Increasing number of people are choosing to take herbal medicine to improve their health conditions. According to the World Health Organisation 75% of the world’s population are using herbs for basic health care.

Herbal medicine can be broadly classified into four basic systems, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Western Herbal Medicine, Ayurvedic Herbalism and Arab Traditional Medicine. Nowadays Western herbal medicine combines these systems in herbal medicine practice especially many of the plant medicines from Chinese Herbal Medicine and Ayurvedic Herbalism.

Chinese herbal medicine is unique to the world and it has influenced the world since ancient times. Its development has emerged from thousands of years of Chinese civilization. Many medicinal texts of herbal medicine have been documented for 5000 of years, with 85% of the Chinese materia medica originated from plants. Like other herbal medicine traditions Chinese herbal medicine is often prescribed as formulas under the guidance of Traditional Chinese Medicine theories and practice, each herbal medicine prescribed are polyherbal formulas that are tailored to an individual’s illness, and is given in specific applications and dosage, to enhances the positive effects and reduces any negative side effects.

Indian herbal medicine or Ayurvedic medicine have used plants to treat illness since the 5th century. Ayurvedic medicine was so respected at this time it was translated into Greek, Tibetan, Arab, Chinese and Persian. India possesses almost 8% of the estimated biodiversity of the world and many of its plant species are medicinal. In India there are approximately 25,000 plant based formulations used in traditional and folk medicine. These are very complex formulas consisting of 30 or more ingredients and are chosen to balance the three humours Vata, Pitta and Kapha, with unique and complex dosage and applications to enhance absorption and efficiency. The treatment is individualised and depends on psychophysiologic states of a person.

The history of Arab herbal medicine involves the ancient Hippocratic -Greek method, Arabs adopted this ancient medical practice because they understood the importance of what they would learn, they translated the works of Hippocrates and Galen, Plato and Aristotle, Euclid and Archimedes into arabic, from this knowledge hospitals, medical schools, pharmacy flourished in Baghdad and provincial cities, from this great learning many scholars at the time reached an education level equal to their Greek teachers (Avicenna (980 -1037) “Canon of Medicine). Following this European scholars of science and medicine in the 12 century appreciated how much they could learn by study these Arabic works, they learnt and proceeded to translate these works into Latin. The Arabic world was the centre of scientific and medical knowledge for many centuries (632- 1258 CE). During the middle ages Arabic medicine contributed to the development of modern medicine and pharmacy in Europe. Arabs adopted the medical practices of Mesopotamia, Greece, Rome, Persia, India, and China and since the 8th century Arabic medicine has used herbal medicine for the prevention and treatment of illness.

Western herbal medicine is centred mostly on the Hippocratic -Greek tradition of health and healing, it is strongly influenced by middle eastern and egyptian civilization and has its roots firmly in the British Isle and the Roman tradition of herbal medicine and folk medicine, it is practised in Western Europe, Canada, United States, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.

Traditional western herbalists use polyherbal formulations ( galenical extracts) in the form of tinctures, liquids or infusions from parts of plants such as roots, bark, berries, leaves, flowers and the whole plant. Herbal medicine practitioners view medicinal plants as structurally complex, with potentially thousands of chemical patterns. These patterns evolve out of adaptive interactions with the environment and work together to ensure plant diversity, growth, protection, health and beauty. Some examples of these chemical patterns include berberine, alkaloids and tannins that protect the plants from predators, flavonoids that act to attract beneficial microorganisms, oils that are secreted to attract pollinators and amino acids, sterols and phenolics that help the plant repair. When ingested the chemical matrixes of these medicinal plants result in network- like interactions with human physiology to invoke health benefits. Echinacea purpurea is one of these medicinal plants, well known for its immunomodulatory effects, it is echinacea’s complex chemical matrix including the many alkylamides, polysaccharides and glycoproteins that contribute to its complex immunological effects, not just one single chemical.

Shaped by traditional knowledge and received wisdom over time, western herbal medicine uses polyherbal formulations as a treatment that is directed at the cause of the health problem and focus holistically on the whole person with the intent to strengthen overall health and wellbeing, to shift any patterns of dysfunction and or imbalance in the body.

A polyherbal formulation can contain between 3 to 6 plant medicines that work synergistically together to support the whole health of a person. An example of a polyherbal formulation for burnout could be Rhodiola, Withania, Skullcap, Milky Oats and Vervain, a formula that focuses on the nervous system and hormones of a person affected by burnout.

There is no doubt a very close link between food as medicine and herbal medicine and when combined together health and healing are set into motion.

The practice of western herbal medicine connects humans with the natural world by applying the concept of holism to person and plant medicine, an understanding in which whole systems arise from parts and whole systems interact with the environment, where the whole is greater than the sum of the part because plants and people are interacting and connected living organism.

The challenge today is how to integrate science with traditional knowledge of western herbal medicine. With current research focused on singular rather than entire plant, this biochemical thinking risks replacing traditional knowledge. It may be best to use complex system science to understand the complexity of traditional herbal medicine rather than the reductionist / mechanistic view point.


Historical Perspective of Traditional Indigenous Medical Practices: The Current Renaissance and Conservation of Herbal Resources
Tradition and Perspectives of Arab Herbal Medicine: A Review
Historical review of medicinal plants’ usage https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3358962/
Complementary and Alternative Medicine, When Rigorous, can be Science
Shanidar IV, a Neanderthal Flower Burial in Northern Iraq
Molecular Understanding and Modern Application of Traditional Medicines: Triumphs and Trials
Revisiting the ancient concept of botanical therapeutics

2 thoughts on “Herbal Medicine and Practice of Western Herbal Medicine.

  1. Interesting material. But the article on the Facebook page has no photo. Just a blank space.
    Ani Kunzang

    1. Thank you, I don’t know why the image is blank, not sure how to change that.

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